The sippy cup is half full – a story of having kids in Academia


Both parents in our household are academics (The Two Body Problem Awesomeness). We knew we wanted a family and I knew I didn’t want to put it off forever. We picked a biological time instead of a career time to try – and we were lucky to have no fertility issues. We had both just secured postdocs at the same institution when we discovered I was pregnant. I defended my dissertation in the first trimester, my husband defended his in the second, and then we moved across the country to start postdocs on the cusp of the third. We had a second child less than two years after our first (while still postdocs). I applied for, interviewed (while pregnant with #2) and secured a tenure track position during my first application cycle, and we negotiated a soft money position for my husband. We were able to defer for one year so I could take maternity leave and we could (try) to wrap up our postdoctoral work.

Planning and some luck are responsible for the fact that we are both still academics. My post doc advisor was so, so, so, so supportive of me. He put no pressure or guilt on me from day one, and his entire lab is family friendly. Having a kid is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding boss guilt to the list. I will always be grateful for this fact and hope to emulate it in my own lab. I also applied for and received a fellowship that allowed me to work at my own pace and on my own project for the last two years of my postdoc. This was huge for my career. My husband’s advisor was similarly supportive. Without the understanding and flexibility of our mentors, I’m not sure we could have made it this far.

Personally, I say I “crash landed” into parenthood. It wasn’t pretty. I had never been around kids. We had a serious health scare. I had the Baby Blues and a short period of post-partum depression. Breastfeeding—not easy under the best circumstances—was much, much harder than I thought it would be (physically and mentally). Pumping at work is the second worst part of parenthood (in my opinion). The first worst part is sleep deprivation. That shit is real. It’s a torture mechanism for a reason. At the start, some babies need to be fed every hour. Go ahead and set your alarm for every hour of the night, stay up for half an hour then repeat. Your next day is not going to be great. Then repeat that for a couple of months and the fact is, your work productivity is going to take a hit. It just is. Plan for it as best you can, don’t beat yourself up for the biological realities, sleep if you need to and rest assured, it will pass.

It took a long time for my fully functional science brain to return to my head. I doubt I worked “full time” for many months after having kids – having children alters every aspect of your life and it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll take a little while, or maybe a long while, to adjust.

All that said – kids are amazing! Now that they are 2 and 4, I am more efficient, happier and (at this point) more productive as a scientist than I was before. Kids give my work brain a break (and work gives my kid brain a break!). I love playing with them. I love reading to them. I love weekends and I love having a very full life. I just traveled to NYC to give a talk and I loved being able to take a short awesome trip and I loved buying two dinosaur toys to spoil them when I got home. I love my life and although I wouldn’t choose to go back to the hardest parts of the last four years, I would never ever change that decision.

I don’t really know what useful advice I have for the young-uns out there. We’ve been lucky and privileged in a lot of ways and it’s not exactly helpful to say “Just be lucky!” We wanted children so we had children. And it’s worked out pretty ok (so far, knock on wood). I guess knowing my priorities helped me a lot. I’m very lucky. I’m very happy. I work my butt off at work and at home and go to bed exhausted every day – and I love it. Good luck to all (and please feel free to post questions here or on twitter @sarahmhird and @NM_Reid)

Noah’s notes on…

  • …mentor support: Both of our postdoctoral mentors were incredibly supportive. That said, the system is unfair to everyone in this circumstance. On average, people starting families are going to experience a productivity hit, particularly women. And PIs on the grants supporting them are likely to feel that. If we want science to be more diverse, PhD students and postdocs can’t just rely on the magnanimity of tenured professors to start their families, we need a system that renders that magnanimity unnecessary.
  • …institutional support: The University of California postdoc union has negotiated decent healthcare and benefits. The first two trimesters of the first pregnancy at our PhD institution cost us dramatically more money than the third trimester, birth and the whole second pregnancy combined at UC Davis. However, technically mothers only get 6-8 weeks “paid” maternity leave (paid by disability insurance! pregnancy as disability, how wonderful!). That is absurdly short. There is amazing variance in needs of infants, and each of our kids completely destroyed our ability sleep out to at least six months before gradually getting better.
  • …the nature of the postdoc: We both did work that allowed flexible hours and did not require extended time at distant field sites or 12 hour stints in the lab. I walked into a postdoc where the initial stages of the project were already underway. I had clear goals for skills I wanted to develop and the project had low technical risk. When your life is about to be upended by children, managing uncertainty is key.

Happy Anniversary Planet Earth! Episode 6: Ice Worlds

Both poles of our planet are covered in ice. They are the largest and most demanding wildernesses of all.

Sigh. We’ve made it to the Ice Worlds episode – the one where the changes of the last ten years are most obvious.

Our understanding of climate change has increased greatly in ten years, although many (especially in the US) remain in doubt. The episode begins and ends in the Arctic, where polar bears are the keystone predator and our adopted mascot for efforts to stop climate change. Maybe you’ve seen the super depressing pictures of starving polar bears. Or the pictures of them swimming in open water. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only animals threatened in these habitats – in fact, basically all animals are negatively impacted by climate change.

Long term studies show Adelie penguin and Chinstrap penguin populations are declining. Antarctic sea ice provide fungus for krill to eat, which the penguins survive on. Emperor penguins fare no better, and their populations are expected to decline massively over the next 50 years or so. Humpback whales also feed on krill in the Antarctic and may be starving as the krill populations decline.  Several birds breed in the Antarctic. Climate change affects these birds in many ways – there may be more nesting habitat for these birds, like Snow Petrels, but the birds also seem to be breeding later in the year as sea ice cover timing changes.


Time for your close up, Ms. Krill.

The sun’s influence diminishes and the ocean starts to freeze. the greatest seasonal change on our planet is underway…

Antarctica is losing ice. This topic has been discussed extensively (see various links here) and is of obvious importance. Unbelievable amounts of ice are doing (nearly) unbelievable things. Weather systems are becoming more dangerous and more costly. What is being done? The White House has enacted some plans for combating climate change and in 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris led to the “Paris Agreement”, outlining a global reduction of climate change (specifically, a limit of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions). These steps are necessary and it’s encouraging that the Paris Agreement has global support. I guess it remains to be seen whether these efforts are enough.


Ice. It’s pretty. I hope it’s not an endangered species.

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is a vast frozen sea surrounded by land.

The same threats and stories are occurring in the Arctic as the Antarctic. Arctic Musk oxen are declining and their range contracting due to climate change as well (and this may have been occurring for the last 10000 years – covered previously at NiB!)

Bad news is everywhere you look when it comes to the Ice Worlds. I’ve watched this episode several times now and it depresses me more each time. Time to focus on getting mad (and proactive) instead of get sad though: here are some tips from the USA Environmental Protection Agency  on how to start combating climate change on a local scale.

The episode ends with more shots of polar bears. I really hope 10 years from now we’re reporting population growth and decreased greenhouse gas emissions, instead of the easier to imagine and much less pleasant alternative.


Polar bear mama and cub.

Following their mother has prepared them for life at the pole, an ever changing land ruled by ice. Whether they are ready for the bigger changes that have begun to shape the ice worlds of our planet remains to be seen.

Happy Anniversay, Planet Earth! Episode 4: Caves

This is our planet’s final frontier. An inner world where only the most adventurous dare to go.


The episode opens with shots of BASE jumpers being swallowed by the Cave of Swallows in Mexico – the largest cave shaft in the world. Throughout this episode, we’re treated to seeing some of the least explored or just most stunning places on Earth – Deer Cave in Borneo, the cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Poor Knight’s Island in New Zealand and Lechuguilla – a gypsum crystal filled wonderland with clear water pools near Carlsbad, New Mexico. We’re also shown the bizarre and slightly creepy cave specialists that frequently share slightly disturbing characteristics like eyelessness, albinism and bioluminescence.


I’m tempted to assume that caves are one of the environments least affected by climate change. I mean, they’re frequently underground and thus climatically buffered and away from most human-associated changes. It may even turn out that their isolation is beneficial to humans. For example, researchers in 2012 found bacteria in Lechuguilla that are resistant to many of the antibiotics we currently use to treat infections – but not because we brought them there. These bacteria have never been exposed to human sources of antibiotics but were all resistant to between one and 14 (!) currently used antibiotics. This means (1) they were exposed to antibiotics inside the pristine cave and (2) they’ve evolved to get around those compounds. “This has important clinical implications. It suggests that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections.” says Gerry Wright (scientific director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University). I don’t want to overstate these findings but caves could hold the key to stopping the antibiotic resistant apocalypse!

Since Planet Earth first aired many new caves have been discovered. Including “the cave so huge it has it’s own weather system” – the first pictures of Er Wang Dong in China came out in 2013 and it’s amazing to see something so large be discovered on our increasingly small planet. Explorers in the Czech Republic believe they have found the world’s deepest underwater cave, measuring in at over 1200 feet down. And Son Doong in Vietnam was discovered in 2009 – another mammoth cave, 2.5 miles long with some passageways being over 600 feet high. (A digital tour can be found here.)


Cave research in the last ten years has also resulted in one of the biggest discoveries of the decade – sitting in the bottom of the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa, a team of 7 spelunkers found thousands of fossils belonging to at least 15 individuals from a new species of human ancestor, Homo naledi. The placement of H. naledi on the Hominid phylogenetic tree and the questions surrounding this amazing discovery (particularly – how did so many individuals become located in a single, difficult to access place? Did H. naledi dispose of their dead?) have been exciting questions that are transformative for what we know about human evolution. (Read more about the expedition here or some of the National Geographic coverage here.)


Not all cave news is happy, unfortunately. Climate change and human habits are affecting ground water and ground water affects caves, both new and old. A particularly sad example is from the Ayalon Cave, discovered in 2006 near Ramle, Israel. The good news: inside the cave, researchers discovered a new species of blind cave scorpion, named Akrav israchanani (after the men who discovered it). The bad news: all 10 specimens had been dead since the 1990s, when intensive pumping of groundwater changed the level of underground water, possibly altering the scorpion’s food chain and driving it to extinction. More good news, though: some parts of the cave system remain intact and another 7 species of arthropods were found in the cave (including some new species) – the challenge now is to protect the cave and its inhabitants from their own discovery.

Here’s a link to the full episode – check it out!

Happy Anniversay, Planet Earth! (Pt 1 of 11)

Shots of Earth from space. The voice of a man you can’t see, but know you can trust.

One hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.

So begins Planet Earth – a documentary series by the BBC and Sir David Attenborough that is so highly esteemed by us here at Nothing in Biology that we’re celebrating its 10 year anniversary by devoting the next 10 weeks to it. We’re reliving the majesty and checking in on some of our favorite places, organisms and phenomena. Essentially, we wondered “Where are they now?” Are any species better off than they were ten years ago? Have any gone extinct? How are we doing in terms of protecting the biodiversity hotspots?


This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.

We see breathtaking landscapes, terrifying heights, beautiful creatures and gruesome battles. We see millions of animals moving together and solitary animals rarely seen by humans. We see the highest peaks and the deepest depths. This series is the definition of awesome. Each week, we’ll embed full episodes and/or clips in the posts (the series is also on Netflix) for convenience but if you’re reading this and the links don’t work – definitely find another way to watch/re-watch/re-re-watch.

The first episode, From Pole To Pole is an overview episode that starts in Antarctica with the charismatic Emperor Penguin.

“Imagine our world without sun.”

As is true of many polar species, and especially true of species that use sea ice, there is much concern over the effects of global climate change on emperor penguins. Accordingly, some work has gone into assessing their current population sizes. Emperor penguins became the first species to have their population size estimated from space. The first recorded loss of an emperor penguin colony has been reported, and it is associated with rising local air temperatures and declining sea ice. Also, some modeling has been done, which suggests that global warming may result in a catastrophic decline of this species over the coming century.

On the organismal biology front, there has been tremendous interest in the emperor penguin’s ability to dive to extreme depths in search of prey. Recent work has established that they can dive as deep as 564m. Physiological research has shown that this ability is facilitated by an extreme slowing of heart rate (going from 85bp at rest to 6bpm at the end of very long dives) and the ability to survive blood oxygen levels so low that they would be “catastrophic” in many birds and mammals.

“A polar bear stirs.”

Next, we follow a mother polar bear and her two adorable cubs. Even more than emperor penguins, polar bears are a species of extreme concern when it comes to the effects of climate change. Their dependence on sea ice, and their fate as it declines has been the subject of much research and discussion, so I won’t go into it much here.

There are, however, other environmental concerns. It turns out that some pollutants from industrialized regions of the world find their way to parts of the arctic and reach high concentrations (PCBs, PBDEs). Some of these can be bioaccumulate, and because polar bears are at the top of the arctic food chain, there has been some research demonstrating high concentrations of these chemicals in their bodies and suggesting these could be a threat to the health of their populations, even effecting the bone density of male bears’ bacula. [Penises and penis bones are a long-standing interest of this blog].

Among novel research findings, in contrast to other bears, polar bears avoid bone density loss during hibernation. The mechanism may prove to be of medical importance to humans because bone loss with age, during prolonged bed rest and IN SPACE are problems.

“The immensity of the herd can only be properly appreciated from the air.”

Moving south across the arctic tundra, we next see the great Caribou migration.  As in, 3 million migrating caribou, the longest distance of any overland migration by any animal. Caribou are still very numerous in 2016, but declining and have been extirpated from some regions, while some other ungulates (e.g., Moose, White-tailed deer) are expanding northward into some of their former habitat. The mechanisms of decline are unclear, so much recent research has gone into trying to understand the interplay of climate change, direct anthropogenic alterations to habitat and predation.

“…a third of all the trees on earth.”

Boreal forests: low animal density, but massively important. They’re also massively threatened – by… you guessed it, climate change, but also by industrial resource extraction (logging and tar sands being major factors). Check out this map from of forest loss in northern North America since 2006:

forestLink copy

Because boreal forests are so extensive and contain so much biomass, they hold huge amounts of carbon. As we all know, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the primary driver of global climate change, so understanding the dynamics of these forests, their fate in a warming climate, and their role in carbon cycling through the atmosphere has been a major research priority.

“…at 50 degrees latitude, a radical transformation begins.”

Broad-leaved forest, complete with easy to digest food for herbivores. We’re treated to a relatively rapid montage through Eurasia and finally see a highlight of the episode – the rarest cat in the world, an Amur Leopard and her cub. In one of the bright spots for conservation in this episode, the number of this species has increased from 40 at the making of Planet Earth to around 70 today! HUZZAH!

“All animals, rare or common, ultimately depend for their energy on the sun.”

Next we see Japan’s Cherry Blossoms and some super cool time-lapse videos of seasonal change. A common theme in climate change research in northern latitudes is the ever earlier arrival of spring. Because Japan’s cherry blossoms are so culturally important, there are over 1200 years of data on the blooming of cherry trees available. Big surprise, these data reinforce that theme. Cherries in Japan are now blooming earlier than ever in recorded history.

A couple of bird species of note are also shown in this sequence: Baikal Teal and European Starling. Baikal teal are strongly recovering from a population crash in the mid-20th century, with some reports having their population increasing by up to several hundred thousand birds in the last decade. European starlings, however, are declining in Europe (almost 80% in Britain), though they remain an abundant invasive species in North America.

“There are parts of the world that have no seasons.”

The focus then moves to tropical forests, and some more really amazing footage, this time of birds of paradise in New Guinea. I mean – this footage is truly spectacular. There is not much work done on these birds (uncommon rainforest birds on New Guinea aren’t the most pliable study system). On the conservation front, they share with all spectacular rainforest creatures twin threats of poaching and habitat loss.

“Life in the oceans”

The episode then shifts focus to the oceans, and another iconic sequence: Great White Sharks feeding off the coast of South Africa. Life hasn’t gotten any easier for Great White Sharks in the last ten years, they are still hunted for teeth, fins and trophies and they are still a victim of bycatch. Oceans in general aren’t faring that well – suffering from overfishing, climate change and pollution. On the plus side, some conservation efforts in North America have led to an increase in population size in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Yay!

“…a search for water.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene from the whole documentary follows a mother elephant and her baby in the Kalahari Desert, as they are separated from the herd and then separated from each other. The baby is last shown alone, following its mothers scent but in the wrong direction, to almost certain death. As you could probably guess, African Elephants are still in serious danger, with ivory poaching driving a global decline in their numbers (as many as tens of thousands a year). Saving these creatures requires international efforts – perhaps some more demonstrations like the destruction of ONE TON of ivory products that New York City held in Times Square last year.

“After four months of total darkness, the sun rises once more rises over Antarctica.”

We revisit the Antarctic as the episode ends – going Pole To Pole as the title episode promises. Be sure to come back next week when we revisit Episode 2: Mountains.
PS – There are now ~7.4 billion people crowding our fragile planet. And counting.

Noah contributed equally to this post.

Just in time for Turkey Day – the lowdown on bird flu

With Thanksgiving coming this week, it seems like a good time to talk a little bit about the impending apocalypse, delivered unto us by poultry. In other words: avian influenza.


Avian influenza (AI) is a virus with two main biological components – the hemagglutinin (which binds the virus to a host cell ) and neuraminidase (which allows it to be released from a cell ). So when you hear H5N1 – the numbers refer to specific strains of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase that vary in their pathogenicity. Wild aquatic birds (ducks, geese, gulls and shorebirds) are the natural host of avian influenza. It is very common for these birds to have one (or more) strains of AI over the course of a year – they don’t die and barely even have symptoms. “Low pathogenicity” AI strains are no big deal to aquatic birds and when they can spread to poultry, the chickens and turkeys have mild symptoms. On the other hand, “high pathogenicity” AI strains can arise from low pathogenicity strains from within domesticated poultry and are highly lethal to chickens and turkeys. The strains most likely to do this are H5 and H7 – these are the strains you hear about in the news that result in massive poultry culls. These strains can spread back to wild aquatic birds, who – if you’re a hunter or birdwatcher know – migrate across entire continents in large flocks. These strains can also spread to humans who are in direct contact with sick, high pathogenicity poultry.

SO FAR, avian flu virus has rarely (but not never) been transmitted from human to human (i.e., airborne). This is good, because the death rate of one H7N9 AI strain in China in 2013 was around 33%. Slightly worryingly,  this strain still persists there – mutating all the while. The doomsday scenario that the WHO and CDC are worried about is a high pathogenicity strain mutating such that it becomes airborne – a scenario that could put tens of millions of people at risk. I suppose a secondary doomsday scenario would be high pathogenicity AI infected ducks dropping deadly high pathogenicity AI duck turds on our heads as they fly across the country. (Did I just come up with the plot for a horror/comedy movie? I await your call, Hollywood.) The USDA is monitoring cases of high pathogenicity AI in wild North American waterfowl and they’re specifically watching an H5 strain that showed up here last year.

The internet has tons more info if you want to read more or freak yourself out. I do kind of feel like a jerk for bringing this up as we’re all headed to airports and then to our families. At least there is some “good” news – no shortage of turkey! Happy Turkey Day! (gulp)


Stomach acid to pathogens: YOU SHALL NOT PASS

Did you know you’re walking around with a little vat of super acid in your belly? Human stomach acid registers 1.5 on the pH scale, making it more acidic than pure lemon juice. And we have to invest energy into not only making the powerful stuff, but then also into making sure we don’t accidentally kill ourselves with it. Why do we do that?

A recent paper by Beasley et al. (in open access PLOS ONE) hypothesizes stomach acid in vertebrates is used to protect our bodies from pathogens – and the more dangerous your diet, the more acidy your acid. “Obligate scavengers”, as defined in this paper, are animals that eat (and only eat) carrion – aka the decaying flesh of dead animals. Delicious? I guess they think so. But sanitary? Definitely not. These species should have the lowest stomach pHs because they need an acid “filter” to kill all the pathogens they’re ingesting with their diet. Herbivores, on the other hand, have plant-based diets with a much lower associated risk for pathogens. These species should have a higher stomach pH because they don’t need a “scorched earth” policy for their digestive tracts.

They further suspect that animals with a phylogenetically close diet might have a higher pathogen risk than animals that eat more phylogenetically distant organisms (and thus lower stomach pHs). The theory here is that eating something related to you means that their pathogens are potentially well-suited to also infect you.

Beasley et al. conducted a literature search and found pH data for 68 species of birds and mammals – which according to them was “far fewer than expected”, given its importance in digestion. They then categorized the species as “obligate scavenger”, “facultative scavenger”, “generalist carnivore”, “omnivore”, “specialist carnivore”, “hindgut herbivore” or “foregut herbivore”. The data show that obligate scavengers have the lowest pHs (average ~1.3) and foregut herbivores have the highest (average ~6.1, all seen in the very cool figure below from their paper). Omnivores and carnivores had the most variable stomach acid levels.

The authors conclude that these results are in line with their expectations – that organisms that eat “high risk” diets have lower stomach pHs. They leave room for the influence of other factors (like how much work it is to break down one’s diet once it’s been ingested) but note that all things being equal, a scavenger’s diet shouldn’t be more difficult to digest as a regular carnivore’s – the only difference being the – er – fact that it’s dead and rotting.

One note: humans have a stomach pH similar to carrion feeders, although we’re technically omnivores. Why would that be? Did we evolve eating a diet that contained more scavenging? (In practical terms, should the Paleo diet include roadkill?) Or does our relatively large number of “fecal-oral pathogens” favor a more acidic stomach? More data on other hominds would be illuminating here.

The paper finally discusses their expectation that when human stomach pH is raised more pathogens are able to become established. Elderly humans have a stomach pH of ~6.6 – a full 5 pH points higher than a healthy adult (wowza!); premature babies have a stomach acid of 4 or higher. Both of these groups suffer more bacterial infections than adults and children. Furthermore, gastric bypass patients have a stomach pH around 6 and may also suffer more bacterial infections. These facts seem to support their main hypothesis – that stomach acid acts as a barrier to pathogens as strong as the risk of infection – but statistical tests remain to be done.

It’s pretty interesting to me to contemplate why animals invest energy into the things that we do. But it seems at this point, stomach acid may be blocking the path of pathogens in the same way Gandalf stopped the Balrog: YOU SHALL NOT PASS. (And it occurs to me – if we stick with this analogy and the caves of Moria are a digestive tract – that would make the rest of the Fellowship that emerges from the caves…turds? Oh geez. I’m sorry, Tolkien…)

The Fellowship does not like being called turds.

Isn’t that just…sexism?

In case you missed it, there was a big-splash paper in PNAS recently entitled “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure-track“. Williams & Ceci found one pretty huge result in their various experiments:

Given otherwise identical candidates, professors preferred female candidates over male candidates by 2:1.

When I first read that, I thought “Great!” But now, after thinking about it some more and reading the paper more carefully, I’m less enthused for two pretty gigantic reasons: methods and interpretation.

I see one major methodological flaw in the experimental design, which briefly is this: Williams & Ceci wrote narrative summaries describing two candidates. They then randomly used either female or male pronouns and asked real faculty members to rank the candidates as if they were potential hires for their department. In fairness, this seems like the most tractable way to hold all variables other than gender as “constant”. However, this design relies on the assumption that the sentences “We view her as a 9.5/10.” and “We view him as a 9.5/10.” are identical in the minds of the reader, which they absolutely are not. Randomizing male and female names on job applications for “lab manager” positions results in everyonScales_NIBe rating the male applicants as more competent, more hirable and deserving of higher salary and more mentorship. Another study put male and female names at the top of a woman’s CV and found the same thing – the male version of her CV was consistently ranked higher. It seems we all judge women more harshly than males. “He” and “she” are simply not equivalent and treating them as such greatly confounds the results presented in the paper. An alternate explanation for all the results in the study is that their methods are not comparing identical applicants at all and are instead showing underlying bias. I mean, riddle me this: if a woman has to be more competent to be viewed the same, given two identical candidates, isn’t the female one more competent?

Along that same vein, I don’t think the experiments were all that great in terms of controls. For example, they find that the single woman was preferred over the (“identical”) married man with children. This basically contradicts everything I’ve ever heard or read about the effects of gender and family on job prospects in Academia – which, summarized is this: Women are professionally penalized for being or wanting to be mothers. Women in general are thought of as ticking biological clocks and departments prefer candidates that will not stop the tenure clock, will not require any family leave and will devote 110% of their time to their labs. (There’s a good summary of the motherhood issue here and more info here or here, or there are some books available or you can go through the wonderful blog Tenure, She Wrote to get all sorts information). There are abundant stories about women being hassled regarding their family plans while on job interviews (it’s illegal to ask about for a reason – and people do it anyway, for a reason). It seems the “risk” of a woman eventually having a baby is something that strongly affects hiring decisions and candidate rankings in the real world. If we’re starting to intentionally overlook that, I think it’s great. But to just say flat-out that a single woman is preferred over a married man is so unbelievable to me that I think it indicates a flaw in this type of study: there is no cost to choosing the candidate you think you should pick vs. the one you might pick in real life. There’s no need to put your money where your mouth is. And again, I wonder if “identical” candidates are not “identical” in this experiment – maybe the hypothetical female candidate is imagined to be 28 years old and the married man with kids is 35 and the 7 year age difference dilutes the man’s accomplishments (or something like that). I just wonder if he’s ranked below her because people make unconscious assumptions about the person based on their lifestyle choices.

The final methods question I have involves a big “yippee” result from the paper – that people who chose to take a year off for family leave were not penalized for it, in fact they were preferred (again, against otherwise identical candidates). Here’s the problem with this one: if they’re identical except for the fact that one person skipped a whole year, who wouldn’t want the one who achieved the same amount of work in one year’s less time? Again, they’re not identical. I guess it’s good that prioritizing family in and of itself isn’t punished, but really, we’re saying “Do you want awesome candidate number one or do you want the equally awesome candidate two who also took a year off to do another awesome thing, stay home with their baby, who didn’t suffer any reduction in productivity?” The fact is, if you take time off, you get less (professional) work done. That’s what people hear when you talk about babies and maternity leave in the real world – you’re going to be a less (professionally) productive person and that might mean some of your work is going to be pushed on to a colleague. So I’m not all that excited or encouraged about this particular result.

Regarding their interpretation of their results – the authors believe what they have found means that women are now the preferred sex in hiring situations. If that’s true – if faculty really prefer females 2:1 over identical males, this has to be an intentional act for this to be good news. If the results indicate that faculty are aware of and would like to correct a dearth of female professors in their department, for instance – that’s great because if two candidates truly are identical, that’s the ideal situation to opt for the underrepresented group. Bravo. However, the authors specifically say their results do NOT represent faculty members actively choosing “socially desirable” outcomes (“i.e., endorsing gender diversity”) because one of their experiments evaluated a single candidate (instead of ranking three). According to them, this experimental design “avoids socially desirable reporting”. The single candidate experiment still showed a preference for females; the women were ranked an average of 10% higher than the identical male candidate. The authors say this “suggests that norms and values associated with gender diversity have become internalized in the population of US faculty.” Hm. I say again, favoring a female candidate because she’s female must be done intentionally. Otherwise, isn’t that just kind of maybe…sexism? (Cue me squeamishly opening a can of worms…) If we’re subconsciously awarding points for being female – that’s a problem. Identical candidates should be ranked identically, right? Correcting unbalanced diversity in departments needs to be done on purpose, not because we’ve “internalized” the message that women need extra help or are more deserving somehow. The authors briefly comment on this in the discussion:

Also, it is worth noting that female advantages come at a cost to men, who may be disadvantaged when competing against equally qualified women. Our society has emphasized increasing women’s representation in science, and many faculty members have internalized this goal. The moral implications of women’s hiring advantages are outside the scope of this article, but clearly deserve consideration.

Yikes! Everything about those sentences worries me. I guess the plus side of me having reservations about their methods means I’m not convinced that the survey respondents weren’t intentionally choosing females. Williams and Ceci did not inquire as to why the respondents were giving the rankings that they did and this would have been a really useful piece of the story. Perhaps the most useful piece because it distinguishes between a conscious “I’m aware of a diversity problem in our department and I think gender should be a factor in future hiring decisions, especially when all the candidates are truly outstanding with no difference in qualifications” and an unconscious “Women deserve points for being women.”

I hope the next gigantic study looks at non-identical candidates. I hope they ask people whether gender affected their decisions. I hope I’m not secretly sexist for thinking this study  – where identical candidates were not ranked identically – sounds sexist.

And finally, my most cynical thought about this whole thing: Do these results even matter? I mean, I guess it does because if they had found the opposite result, I would find that depressing. But I never really thought that this stage is the problem – that if I got the interview and nailed the interview, that I wouldn’t get a fair ranking. There are so many other factors that I think are bigger problems (e.g., implicit bias, stereotype threat, the baby penalty, lack of mentors) that this is almost irrelevant. Almost. It’s still pretty good news to know that there’s not some overarching bias against sex in ideal scenarios. But do I agree with the authors when they say it’s “a propitious time for women launching careers in academic science”? I’m not so sure we’re there yet (and this paper certainly hasn’t convinced me so).